by Ethan Julian Zamora, Jeric Ruiz, and Justine Avery Arizabal
With Japan's rise to cultural relevance, much of it's war crimes during WW 2 have been greatly overshadowed, leading many people around the globe to forget these atrocities. From anime and manga to Sanrio and Nintendo, the former imperial nation has successfully rebranded itself to appear as a soft power within a sociopolitical lens. As first popularized by American political scientist Joseph Nye, soft power is a diplomatic strategy used "to make people in other countries more receptive to Japan's positions through the dissemination of the [nation's] cultures and values." The Japanese began to employ this strategy in the 1980s to enhance their image, which suffered greatly due to World War II. Anti-Japanese sentiments were common during this time, especially in neighboring Asian countries where movements against the country occurred. There was ultimately a shift in these sentiments that can be seen within today's society once Japan instilled its culture and beliefs through popular culture diplomacy through kawaii culture. While Japan has actively worked to erase its violent history through cultural appeal and attraction, victims of their war crimes have continuously fought to ensure that this history is remembered and the Japanese government is held accountable for their actions.
There have been numerous comparisons between the Rising Sun flag and the Nazi German flag, both of which were used by their respective countries during World War II. However, only the Nazi Germany flag is repeatedly censored, despite the fact that the Rising Sun flag holds similar meanings for many different ethnic groups across Asia, such as Filipinos, Koreans, and Chinese. For these people, the Rising Sun Flag is a reminder of the war crimes and atrocities that were committed against them, such as mass murder, chemical warfare, and the rape and torture of comfort women. These are actions that Japan's victims most certainly remember in the Second World War, yet it is a forgotten piece of history for a huge majority of people.
During the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Philippine-American influencer and media personality Bella Poarch faced controversy from the public for her Rising Sun tattoo. Although the sun itself was replaced with a heart, the burning image of the Japanese imperial flag was still there. Filipinos, Koreans, and numerous other ethnic groups were offended by this, leading Poarch to issue a statement of apology admitting to being unaware of the flag's meaning. This apology, which she issued through a TikTok video, is ultimately reflective of the ignorance and unfamiliarity that many people have in regard to the Rising Sun Flag. Japan's rebranding has allowed the Rising Sun Flag to remain a cultural symbol that is relevant in the West as well as in Japan, where it continues to be used in popular culture and media.
Although Japan is widely known for its new-age technology, foreign media, and culture, its rebranding is linked to its refusal to pay reparations and its refusal to issue an apology for the war crimes they have committed. After the Second World War, Japan tried to revitalize its image by dissociating from its war crimes and imperialist aggressions and instead associating with the technology, infrastructure, and media they had created that was palpable and viewed as "non-threatening" to the Western world.
Hello Kitty—the small, sweet, and innocent white cat—is a prominent example of Japanese popular culture diplomacy, as evident through her marketability to the average Westerner. After World War II, many Americans and those of the West refused to use Japanese-owned products. One factor of the Japanese's successful rebranding was the kawaii culture. Through kawaii culture, which translates to cuteness culture, Japan was able to push Hello Kitty's image to wide popularity. Hello Kitty, with her pink clothes, cute animal friends, and childish behavior, fits the characteristics and image little children love. With kawaii culture, the heinous war crimes Japan committed were overshadowed.
Even though the United States was fighting Japan during WW2, they needed Japan's influence in the Pacific during the Cold War era. With that, the United States was willing to use its power of influence to change Japan's image and help its WW2-era politicians get back in power. While the Western world in its entirety dominates and influences global society, the United States remains the most influential Western country. Nobusuke Kishi, the mastermind of the Japanese state of Manchukuo in Northeastern China, exploited the people of Northeastern China as he would abuse his own power. After World War II, Nobusuke Kishi was charged as a war criminal. However, during the Cold War era, he was released from jail and became Prime Minister of Japan within a year. President Eisenhower of the United States believed he was able to lead the post-war Japanese society with American influence. And Kishi still has an impact in modern Japan as his grandson became Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Koichi Iwabuchi (2015) Pop-culture diplomacy in Japan: soft power, nation branding and the question of 'international cultural exchange', International Journal of Cultural Policy, 21:4, 419-432, DOI: 10.1080/10286632.2015.1042469
Christopher Sayas, Pacific Atrocities Education, September 5, 2017, https://www.pacificatrocities.org/blog/nazi-flag-vs-rising-sun-flag
Catherine Wang (II),The Argo, Why Japan Made Its "Cute Culture" Such a Hit, April 17, 2022, https://blsargo.org/2959/forum/why-japan-made-its-cute-culture-such-a-hit/
Lars Eric Schonander, Palladium, June 2022. https://www.palladiummag.com/2022/06/03/the-works-of-the-monster-of-showa/
Emma Taggart and Margherita Cole, My Modern Met, January 1st, 2022. https://mymodernmet.com/kawaii-art-japanese-culture/